Do we really need exams?

Covid has thrown many educational challenges at us – not least in questioning the sanctity of school examinations.   As I write, there is a serious suggestion from some university vice-chancellors and a major teaching union that in 2021 A-level results should again be based on teacher assessment.  The argument runs that students have missed important amounts of learning time since lockdowns began, and that the remaining lessons would better be spent making up for that time, rather than on preparation for taking exams.

OK – so what do we do next year?  We know that teacher estimates of grades have a tendency to be optimistic, especially in schools with relatively few high-achieving students.  We know that there can be little comparability between these grades from year to year in the same school, or between the marks achieved by students in different schools in different mock examinations.  These are not useful guides.   

Ofqual and the examination bodies would need to devise a scheme of moderation which ensured maximum fairness for all – and although it wouldn’t be hard to improve on the debacle of summer 2019, this is no slight task.  A colleague has pointed out that universities manage this issue by cross-moderation between institutions.  If schools were to adopt a version of this process, there could be additional benefits in relation to sharing good practice.

If we can’t or shouldn’t administer written exams as at present, perhaps we should ask ourselves how much we would miss them if we cut out quite a lot of our cherished assessments altogether.  How important is it for students to take an examination in year 11, given that this is no longer the ‘school leaving age’?  Is there perhaps a case for examining students just once – at the point where they leave full-time education and move (with luck) into employment at age 18 or 21?  

Many school students proceed to some form of higher or further education, where they will be examined at the point of departure.  Students leaving school or college at 18 to seek employment could be provided with a ‘school-leaving report’ to a nationally agreed format, summarising their academic and other attainments from the records that the school will have kept over a period of years.  Higher education institutions already have great autonomy in the awards they give, and innovative practices could be encouraged.

A final thought: schools in the UK spend more than £300 million per year on examination fees – that’s an average of £75,000 per school per year.   That sum would buy several thousand new books or 200 new iPads for every school – every year.